How to win without even competing

We are surrounded by competition. Bake offs, beauty contests, hackathons, dog shows, sports, fantasy sports, dance battles, chess matches, singing contests, card games, stamp collecting, etc. all encourage us to try our hardest to beat someone else. It’s one of the most common structures we have for organizing activities, period. The setting can be work, school, church, friends, government, entertainment, or anywhere else.

Some blokes fighting for something important, possibly the other’s coat and top hat.

What do we get from competition? In the best case, we push ourselves beyond what we thought possible, proving that we have the most merit and right to some rare prize. We often work hard for hours, days, months, years, envisioning our adversary, dreaming of the spoils and adulation we’ll get in return. Competition taps into something primitive within us that makes us exert more effort.

At the same time, we get toxicity, single-mindedness, and division… often even when we win. When we lose we get all that and depression, loss of self-confidence, isolation, and sometimes mockery. In competitions with more than two competitors, there are more losers than there are winners. Thus we multiply these loss effects by the whole field of, shall we say, “participants.”

Competitions are not always explicit either. In fact, in my case, I find myself in much more internal competition than external. As an example, I “play” guitar. I’m not that good at it. I watch YouTube videos of virtuosos 30 years younger than me who have been playing for less time than I’ve spent chopping onions and I feel defeated. I implicitly, mentally put myself in competition with anyone I see playing guitar. The same thing happens with my actual job, with people who are funnier than me at a party, people who eat hotter peppers, etc. In these cases, I really can’t “win” and I usually lose.

What I’m hoping you’ll take away is the realization that making everything a competition is often a choice and one with potentially significant downsides. I also have a suggested alternative approach to reduce mental fatigue from all the toxicity I mentioned above.

When do we need competition?

Competition can be a very good system for deciding who should have scarce resources. There appears to be some sort of evolutionary drive in us that, when the cards are down, we draw up all we have — which is often more than we thought — to win the prize.

If money, people’s time, or other baubles are limited and more people want them than are available, competition could make sense. We’re still trading everyone’s time, effort, and money (including the losers) and all the bad feelings that go along with them for this selection process. It could be worth it. If the competition is particularly suited to showing who most deserves the prize, it may be the right choice. (If the competition isn’t directly related to merit, there are other options, e.g. a lottery/raffle.)

How someone might take a multitude of factors, reduce them to an ordering of contestants, and pick a winner

What’s happening is we have someone who controls something in high demand, trying to figure out to whom it should go, and competition helps linearize the problem. In other words, by setting up rules (objectively or subjectively judged), they get a simpler way of deciding who gets what. At the same time, you get stratification — breaking people down into groups of who’s better and worse. This approach may be completely appropriate.

Let’s not if we don’t have to

So competition is a simplification mechanism. At this point, you’re probably asking yourself, “what did our old friend Albert Einstein (maybe) say about simplification?”

Albert Einstein, trying to write “LOL” on a chalkboard, but running out of space.
Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.
— Albert Einstein (possibly)

What if we’re dealing with resources that aren’t really constrained? Let’s say for example, we’re talking about a $25 gift certificate, donated by somebody who can easily afford it as a prize in a poetry competition for a historical event. Is it worth making a few dozen people compete to write poems to see whose is the “best?” (Maybe in this case, all the induced pathos will actually lead to better poems, but I digress…)

Did this scenario really need simplification? We created false scarcity then forced ourselves into needing judges to make the process of stratification possible. If this competition managed to inspire people to write poetry where they otherwise wouldn’t have and they don’t come away feeling too badly, great. On the other hand, if you ended up just getting everyone’s hopes up and dashed any future chance of them writing poetry because they think they’re awful at it, you’ve just lost a bunch of potential poets and a gift card.

What if instead of pitting everyone against each other, you simply asked people to submit a poem to be joined in a collection? If you need to drive them to write, engage with them in the weeks leading up to when you would have had the competition. Sounds like more work, but then again the alternative with the competition was to shift all of that work and emotional baggage onto the competitors.

In other words, be aware of when competition is just making it easier to drive people at their own expense rather than that of the competition organizers.

Don’t get mad, get rad

Imitation can be the greatest form of inspiration.

As I mentioned at the beginning, the bad bits of competition for me are often self-inflicted. I mentally cast myself and other people in a competition unnecessarily. This leads me to resent them and feel bad about myself. I usually don’t even get the benefits of competition — driving me to go above and beyond — because I end up feeling defeated.

I suspect a lot of this mental approach comes from school, where we were often forced onto a curve to make sure someone was at the top of the class. The other students’ success directly threatened me.

My parents were also very encouraging when I grew up and told me I could be whatever I wanted to be, so every pursuit became a possible career in my mind. This encouragement set me up to think of everything I do, even if it’s just a hobby, as something which must be done to the fullest. The competitive mindset sunk in again.

Recasting my mental state to one of inspiration has been my approach to working on these issues. Rather than looking at other people who are doing similar things as me as competitors, I look at them as possible mentors, giants upon whose shoulders I can stand, or just people with great ideas I can try. Moreover, I remind myself to feel happy for them and for the world that what they’ve done is achievable.

Some examples of the mental shifts I try to make:

  • When I have an idea and find that someone has done something similar, I think, “cool, there’s someone else out there that thinks like me!,” “what can I learn from how they did this?,” “can I take this further now from this point?,” and “since this already exists, I’m freed up to work on the next idea.”
  • If someone is doing something, but not quite as well as me, I try to remember the vulnerability and/or excitement I felt at that early stage.
  • When I see someone doing what I’m doing, but much better, I look to see what makes it better. I may compliment them, even if I don’t know them (btw, it’s really nice to hear someone say, “you inspired me!” as a compliment). I stand it awe of their achievement and recognize that they’ve shone a light on possible future paths. I also may try to do exactly what they’ve done as a learning experience and not worry if I don’t do as well.

None of this is easy. It requires undoing what I’ve trained myself to do over decades. It means active, mindful observation of my own thought patterns and reminding myself that I don’t need to compete. It takes practice, but it’s starting to work. And even in this pursuit, I have inspiration. Once I realized I should start thinking this way, I realized lots of other people I have known do it already, possibly intuitively. They tend to be the really nice people that are fun to hang out with. :)

And the winner is…

Hopefully you got some useful ideas from this post on how to figure out when or if you should frame things as a competition, whether in a personal context or with other folks. Competition has its place, but it also has a cost. As I realize these tradeoffs, I’m trying to make changes to live with a more sustainable mindset.

Let me know if any of this resonates with you and you find these suggestions helpful or inspiring. I suspect a few folks may just think this is all loser talk, but I don’t really care because I’m not playing… 😎